• Joseph F. Berenato

Superintendent Chieco letter details school opening plans


On February 26, Hammonton Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco mailed a letter to parents in the district announcing that “the district is preparing for the possible lifting of restrictions within the educational setting.” (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—On February 26, Hammonton Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco mailed a letter to parents in the district announcing that “the district is preparing for the possible lifting of restrictions within the educational setting.”


“Our original reopening plan incorporated smaller class sizes to adhere to social distancing guidelines in addition to a strict mask requirement. This plan has allowed the continuation of in-person instruction for the majority of the 2020-2021 school year using the hybrid schedule with minimal close contacts identified within the school setting,” the letter read.


In the letter, Chieco asked parents to complete a survey, which was available on the district’s website from March 2 through March 7, regarding a phased reopening of the schools.


“Your opinion and preferences will guide our district plans moving forward. Provided the positive cases for COVID-19 decrease and our area remains in the yellow or green phases, we will begin phasing in our students to additional in-person instruction opportunities,” the letter read.


Chieco noted in the letter that each school building may have different schedules due to “the complexity of a Pre-K-12 district.”


“Information obtained from the survey will be shared with the public and will be provided to the Schoolwide Planning Teams for each building. These teams, consisting of school personnel along with Board of Education members, parents and local business owners have been meeting throughout the reopening process,” the letter read.


According to the letter, the following timeline had been developed:


• March 1: Bring pre-kindergarten (PreK) five days per week, eliminating Remote Wednesdays for these students


• March 8: Bring special education inclusion hybrid students in grades kindergarten through 12 four days per week


• March 15: Bring 12th grade students four days per week to close their high school careers as a group


• April 12: Additional changes based on survey responses and current health conditions for the fourth marking period


The letter also stated, “A boxed breakfast/lunch will be provided for students to eat at home daily. Therefore, if a change is made, the options available to parents would only be to send their child 5 half-days per week with larger classes or to select Remote Instruction only.”


Chieco told The Gazette that, as the district attempts to provide additional in-person opportunities for students, changes “must be made in incremental steps to monitor any effects on COVID infection rates within the schools.”


“The first few changes we are implementing such as Pre-K for five days, returning hybrid inclusion special education students for four days and hybrid 12th-graders for four days slowly increase our in-person attendance while still being able to maintain 6 feet of social distancing in classrooms, cafeterias and on buses. As the six feet of social distancing is decreased, the number of close contacts within the school setting will increase and cause potential closures for classrooms and possibly entire buildings. A close contact is identified as anyone within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive individual for a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” Chieco said.


Chieco said that PreK was the only grade with minimal changes within the reopening plan.


“Pre-K classes did not have cohorts and attended their regular half-day sessions as in a normal year. The only change for the 2020-2021 school year was the Remote Wednesday. This was done to keep families on the same schedule. As we attempt to phase in additional in-person instruction, the PreK Wednesday schedule was the easiest addition to implement. Although March 3 was the first Wednesday for their new schedule, the classroom attendance was very good,” Chieco said.


Chieco said that, provided the district does not see a rise in COVID-19 cases nor in close contacts, the hope is to return all students to five days of single-session in-person learning on April 12, which is the start of the fourth marking period.


“It was always our hope that by the end of the school year we could implement changes that would bring our students back into our classrooms for daily in-person instruction and interaction with their teachers,” Chieco said.


Sam Mento III, the president of the Hammonton Board of Education, concurred with Chieco.


“The board and the district—and, I believe, the community as a whole—has always believed the best place for a child to learn is in a classroom with one of our certified, professional teachers. With the global pandemic, we were forced to make some changes, but the goal has always been to return our students back to school, and I’m very happy that we are implementing a new phase of that return strategy,” Mento said.


However, Chieco noted, with the total number of students returning, it will not be possible to maintain six feet of social distancing.


“For this reason, we cannot provide lunches in our cafeterias or classrooms as students would be without masks. Just as restaurants must seat customers six feet apart for indoor dining, we must also adhere to this restriction. Our phasing in plan was developed in consultation with the Atlantic County Department of Health. They reaffirmed the need for six feet of social distancing while eating meals,” Chieco said.


Board of Education member John Lyons explained further.


“The students are at a higher risk when they’re in the lunchroom together without masks on. It’s difficult to socially distance in the lunchroom without masks while the kids are eating. It’s very challenging. It’s a matter of evaluating the risk. It’s a function of mitigating risk with an eye on student safety,” Lyons said.


Lyons noted, though, that the district will be providing take-home lunches for its students.


“For any kid that needs a lunch to bring home, they will be given that. The younger students will also have the opportunity to have a snack during the day, and the district will be providing and supporting parents if that needs to be a little more substantial than what they’re used to bringing,” Lyons said.


Mento said that, under this single-session model, each student will have 32-minute classes as opposed to the traditional 42-minute classes.


“That still gives them a nice dose of each class, and then they can take their lunch home at the end of the day ... Their traditional lunch period will essentially be a study hall, because they can’t remove their masks to eat,” Mento said.


Chieco said that she believes that her hopes for this plan are the same as those of the community: for the “students and staff to return to school in the safest way possible.”


“We are approaching this phasing in plan as we have approached every change and additional restriction throughout this entire school year. We were able to safely open our schools in September with thoughtful planning while other districts waited for months before opening their buildings. We must look at all of the variables that impact our four schools, 3,500 students and 600 staff members, and make decisions that ensure their health and safety. I believe that the mitigation measures we are implementing along with the incremental re-introduction of larger groups will achieve that goal,” Chieco said.


Chieco said that to say this year has been a challenging one for all involved is “a gross understatement,” but the district has attempted to use various strategies to increase student involvement.


“We have offered our high school students opportunities to participate in athletic programs, marching band and various clubs and organizations to provide experiences that they can include in college applications and future plans. We have incorporated Family Reading Night, Back-to School Nights, theme days, the Spelling Bee and other academic competitions. We have also made changes to our instruction with live-streaming classes for grades 6-12 and whole-group Google Meets on Remote Wednesdays,” Chieco said.


Chieco said that she remains hopeful that additional opportunities will be available before the end of the school year.


“We are already making plans for milestones such as prom, senior awards and graduation ceremonies. It is our goal that, as vaccinations become more readily available and restrictions are lifted, we can continue to expand our offerings and return to five full days of in-person instruction as soon as conditions allow,” Chieco said.


Mento said that he hoped this is only the beginning in returning students to a sense of normalcy.


“If things are to get better with the numbers and guidance from the CDC, we can easily transition those single sessions into a full-session day,” Mento said.


Lyons concurred.


“I absolutely support the idea of five days in school for a half-day as a good first step with a goal toward reopening completely ... Local boards of education are the best people equipped, working with the administration, to make the choices for their students to keep them safe and to bring them back to school as quickly as we can,” Lyons said.


To aid in future efforts, the district was informed that it would be receiving an increase in state aid funding for the 2021-2022 school year. According to information provided to The Gazette by the district’s business administrator, Barbara Prettyman, Hammonton will see a net total increase of $3,171,949.


That total reflects an increase of $3,562,845 in equalization aid ($15,455,471 for 2020-21 and $19,018,316 for 2021-22), but also reflects a $273,990 decrease in choice aid ($2,377,746 for 2020-21 and $2,103,756 for 2021-22), for a net increase of $3,288,855 in Fund 10. There is also a $116,906 decrease in preschool aid ($501,420 for 2020-21 and $384,514 for 2021-22), for a combined fund total increase of $3,171,949.


Prettyman said that the finance committee was scheduled to meet during the week of March 8 to finalize budget decisions, and explained how the decreases will be handled.


“The decrease in choice aid will net against the increase in equalization aid. The total $3.288 million will be used to support the general fund budget. The decrease in preschool aid, $116,906, will be made up with local funds,” Prettyman said.


Mento noted that the district is “$11 million underfunded, but this will certainly help.”


“We’re very happy for the additional funding. It’s early in the game, so our finance committee is going to meet, and we’re going to figure out how to proceed with the amount of revenue we have this year. I know it’s going to be a big help, just because we won’t have to use surplus to run our school like we did last year. It’s early on; we have to digest everything. Our business administrator, Barbara Prettyman, along with the board, are well aware of the financial toll that this global pandemic has taken on our local residents and businesses. With that being said, we are very confident that we will be able to lower the tax rate in our upcoming budget,” Mento said.